Spring is upon us, and what better way to celebrate the beginning of brighter days than to celebrate the best film beginnings of all time! Check back all month long as we look at the films with the best beginnings.
Check out the previous entries into this series here:
So far this month we’ve looked at the best opening shots and the best title sequences in film. But although those aspects of a film can be important, they pale in comparison to what an opening scene can do to a film. An opening scene is what officially starts a film. It sets up the story, introduces characters, allows the audience to become familiar with the setting, and often introduces a conflict upon which the rest of the film is based. Because of all of these potential uses for the opening scene of a film, it can be considered one of the most crucial aspects of filmmaking.
Like opening shots, opening scenes can be approached in a variety of different ways depending on how the story of the film is being told. Some opening scenes start in the past, to provide a background to the actual timeline of the film which occurs later. Some opening scenes start at the end of the film, where the plot unfolds as an explanation for that initial occurrence. Often, an opening scene is jam-packed with action, to ramp up audience excitement right away. Other times, the opening scene is drawn out, a method used to help the tone of the film seep into the audience or starting the process of slowly building towards the climax.
Our list picks some of the most impressive opening scenes to ever be seen in film. Some filmmakers have several films that could have ended up on this list, but we chose the best one in order to try provide as much variety as possible.
First, let’s take a look at a few excellent opening shots which missed the top ten:
The Social Network (2010)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Matrix (1999)
Part 2 (missing a few seconds in between)
Blue Velvet (1986)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
AND NOW THE TOP TEN:
10. Scream (1996)
Why is it in the top ten? Horror movies are supposed to happen a certain way. We’re supposed to know that the highest-billed actor survives to the end of the film. We’re supposed to have clueless characters. We’re supposed to take it seriously. Scream changed all that. The opening scene played off of all of those stereotypes. It proved to you that anything could happen, and that we had become lazy in our movie making and watching. This is an opening scene that almost single-handedly revived the horror genre.
9. Children of Men (2006)
Why is it in the top ten? No opening scene introduces you to a setting as effectively as the opening scene in Children of Men. Like many other opening scenes on this list, it is sad, shocking, and violent. Stitched together as one long tracking shot, it gives the audience an uninhibited view of a dirty, crowded, and disturbing future. What is happening in the background is just as important as what is happening in the foreground, a tactic the film would use often later on. It also uses the familiar tactic of having a newscast help to provide some background, but the story it is spinning in untraditional and unique to this film. As such, it makes a lasting impact and later we learn how the plot of the film is related. But against all of the struggle and pain, we also see the hope that is at the heart of the film. We see people drawn together by tragedy, even two people embracing a split second before tragedy strikes.
8. The Hunger (1983)
Why is it in the top ten? Odd, yet catchy music? Check. Haunting yet mesmerizing visuals? Check. Excellent pacing and drive? Check. This is an amazing opening scene that totally outshines the rest of the film. Tony Scott brought his experience from making commercials to the feature film format, and it helped to usher in a flashier, more sensory-driven era of cinema. This opening scene is simply a clinic in contemporary filmmaking techniques. From the cinematography, to the acting, to the costumes all having a huge impact on the overall product and also the audience.
7. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Why is it in the top ten? Unlike most of the opening scenes that made the top ten, Once Upon a Time in the West doesn’t have a lot of action. It isn’t fast paced and doesn’t grab your attention with inventive style or an unfamiliar setting. Instead, it’s remarkably similar and straightforward. It’s a masterpiece of sound and space. The sound is a cacophony of creaks, buzzes, and insects. So sharp and direct that they literally transport the audience into the film. The space is full of wide open panoramas of a dusty old west train station. We see grizzled callused men, thanks to a mixture of close-up shots thrown in. Finally, the cherry on top of it all is the breathtaking high-contrast cinematography. Few scenes, let alone entire films, are as well composed and impressive as this opening scene.
6. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Why is it in the top ten? Quentin Tarantino is a master of opening scenes. One could argue that his opening scenes are often as impressive and impactful as the climaxes of his films. The reason that his openings are often so effective is that they are not like typical film beginnings. Instead, they are unexpected, seemingly feeling like a scene plucked from the middle of the film rather than the beginning. It’s like a game that Tarantino plays, sprinkling the context needed to fully understand his opening scene throughout the rest of the film. In this way, it can be overwhelming at first, but in order to sort out the confusion, the audience wants to keep watching to see how everything fits together. Of all his opening scenes, the opening of Inglourious Basterds depicts this quality the best. It is shocking, charming, haunting, and interesting all at the same time.
5. The Godfather (1972)
Why is it in the top ten? One of the most famous scenes of all time just happens to be the opening scene for one of the best films ever made. It immediately establishes the titular character of the film, showing his superiority and power. The slow pacing shows the character’s comfort and control, the camera angles suggest an air of dominance, and the body language of the other characters creates the idea of loyalty. From this perspective, the audience sees The Godfather in his element, a crime lord doing what he does best. There’s an air of mystery and danger that creates intrigue among the unsettling topic.
4. Up (2009)
Why is it in the top ten? Making the audience feel something emotionally is a great way to get them involved in your story immediately, and that’s just what the opening scene in Up does. It’s also a story within a story, a way to provide background context and help fill in one of the film’s main characters. Although it is ultimately a sad emotional experience, the idea of having a scene like this at the beginning of a film speaks volumes about Pixar’s creativity and proficiency to making emotionally involved films. Furthermore, it is an opening that both children and adults will understand and become interested in together.
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
Why is it in the top ten? “Rosebud” may be one of the most famous lines in all of film, and if that was the only memorable thing about this scene, it would still have made this list. But the opening scene to the greatest film ever made is more than just a memorable line. It’s a great piece of technical filmmaking. It opens like a horror movie, layers of film piled on top of eachother depicting an eerie wasteland set to haunting music. This is the future, the ultimate goal of the film, to explain what happened here. We see a man on his deathbed. It’s a risk, killing off your main character in the first scene, but it pays off. It creates so much interest and emotion that you have to keep watching.
2. The Lion King (1992)
Why is it in the top ten? Like Up, The Lion King opens with an emotional scene (this time happy), but adds an additional component to put it at number two on this list. That component is amazing, spellbinding visuals and music. This is an opening scene that literally leaps out of the screen with its fantastic use of color. It’s a work of moving art. The way it skips around the setting, giving glimpses of the different animals helps to create the setting and give a tone of peace and happiness that the plot will later play off of. It’s wonderfully paced, incredibly detailed, incredibly creative, and most of all, pure Disney magic.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Part 2 (missing a few seconds between)
Why is it the best ever? Spielberg may have invented the blockbuster, but with Raiders of the Lost Ark he really showed audiences how exciting movies could become. Part of what makes Raiders so successful is the opening scene. Here, Spielberg throws the audience directly into the action. We immediately see the charm, the wit, and the excitement that the film would later offer. It’s the ultimate incentive to keep watching. We get to see the main character in his element, and in doing so, we learn more about him and want to be part of his adventures. The big opening action scene has since become a necessity in big-budget action films, and this opening scene in Raiders is proof that when handled correctly, it can be extremely powerful.
Join us next week as we celebrate more excellent film beginnings.